Cigarette sellers and ticket touts: our strange relationship with entrepreneurs

A moment of intimacyI am not, ordinarily, afraid of rising early. However, when it is winter and 4am and one of the mizzly-drizzly-dawns where the fine rain settles into every warm crevasse, nestling down and sapping all heat, it better be a good reason.

This particular morning I had risen, dressed and driven to the centre of Cape Town with a few rolls of black and white film, my old Ricoh SLR camera and its 50 mm lens. I went in search of photographs for an advanced hand-printing course I was doing at the Cape Town School of Photography.

I have always loved entrepreneurs; their bravery, compassion and ambition. In every transaction between buyer and seller there is a single moment of intense intimacy. When two strangers connect as they exchange cash for goods.

I went in search of those moments. But not between formal, established businesses. Between the informal. The people who survive through entrepreneurship because life and luck have denied them the opportunity that those of us with educations and access to formal banking take for granted.

I went in search of street traders and hawkers. I wanted to see them early. As they set up, collected their thoughts and prepared for the day. I wanted to see them before they settled their faces and emotions against the hardships of selling.

Many of these businesses are, superficially, illegal.

One such was a slender man sitting in a wheelchair at the entrance to the main Cape Town station. In front of him was an overturned plastic milk-crate on which he had a small number of boxes of cigarettes. It is legal to sell unopened boxes of cigarettes. It is illegal to sell them individually.

He was selling individual cigarettes for 60 cents each (about 7 US cents).

Every morning he would buy as many boxes of cigarettes as he could afford and every day he would sell them to people only slightly less impoverished who would satisfy their addiction in ones and twos.

One of my favourite photographs shows him in stillness, his hand and that of his customer in motion.

Cigarette seller

Cigarette seller

I find tremendous beauty in the five photographs I selected for my exhibition. Each features a face, their hopes and fears evident in the early dawning, as they scan the crowds for customers. Each was taken without any awareness of my presence as I snatched these moments from the shadows and rain.

Over the years I have spent consulting in micro-enterprise, I have met hundreds of these men and women. Each no less a magnificent human being as the people who, like Mark Zuckerberg, we more regularly admire as top entrepreneurs.

Men and women who, just as clearly, confront their limitations with honesty and fortitude and go as far as they can go. Their starting points are incredibly humble; a cardboard shack in the middle of a crowded informal settlement, abandonment and illiteracy.

I often wonder at the fear that ordinary people lay at the feet of entrepreneurs. The Bill Gates and T Boone Pickens of the world have been superhumanly successful, and are regularly castigated. Many billionaires are treated as villains unless they are prepared to buy absolution by giving their money away to charities.

I often wonder if ordinary people were more aware of the ordinary entrepreneurship around them whether they would be quite so intolerant of the few who become super-rich? Whether there is a peculiar form of condescension aimed at the poorest traders that fails to recognise their skills?

The tragedy of poverty is that it denies courageous and creative individuals the opportunity to achieve so much more than their limited station affords them.

I was made abundantly aware of this last night at a sell-out concert in London. Outside was a ticket tout. He was thin and obviously poor, but well-dressed and with the swagger and confidence of a man who trades in millions.

He arrived with nothing but an offer, “Any tickets, I buy.” It took him 20 minutes and he had his first ticket which he bought for £10. It had a face value of £25.

Someone asked, “How much?”

“As much as possible.”

He joshed good-naturedly with an expensively-dressed man trying to sell two tickets. The expensively-dressed man wasn’t a tout, but he wasn’t prepared to hand over his £50-worth of tickets for £20.

I would have remonstrated with him. “Do you know nothing about the time value of money? You earn way more than this tout. Your opportunity cost of standing here, just to get a better return, is costing you the opportunity to go out with your wife or whatever other reason has led you to sell these tickets. Take the loss and let the tout take the risk.”

But I didn’t, I simply observed.

I called the tout over. “I don’t want to buy. I just want to ask you something.”

He smiled and sauntered over. He had another two hours before the show started. Plenty of time.

“How many tickets can you usually sell in an evening?”

“About eight,” he said, his rich Caribbean accent warm and friendly.

“And how much can you earn?”

“It depends. Sometimes I throw them all away, sometimes I don’t have enough.”

He grinned as he remembered. “When Cat Stevens was here, I was buying them for £25 and selling for £120.”

“That’s awesome, but how often does that happen?”

“Oh, not that often,” he grinned again, patting me on the shoulder. An intimacy; one conspirator to another.

“You’re a brave man,” I said. He smiled a far-away smile, looked at me, and then went on his way. I wanted to ask if he ever used any of the tickets he bought to see a show, but never had the chance.

Perhaps he thought I was being patronising. Perhaps he didn’t consider himself brave, merely providing for his family in the only way available to him. Perhaps I touched a nerve he didn’t have the luxury of contemplating.

I meant it, though, he’s a brave man. I couldn’t do that.

There are people who make millions doing this. Bond and stock traders. This guy, with education and opportunity, could probably be a brilliant trader. Instead he is trading extra tickets at concert venues.

Poverty robs not just the individuals of what they could be, it robs all of us.

2 replies »

  1. In every single moment of intimacy, there is an intense transaction.

    Nice piece. And true. I founded, built and sold a business and it was completely nervewracking in a way being an employee is not.

  2. Brilliant and insightful. I wish I could see and write as well. Thanks, Gavin.